By Mark Frauenfelder
Small Times Correspondent
May 6, 2002 — Cyrano Sciences Inc. makes an $8,000 electronic nose the size of a large walkie-talkie. Just wave the Cyranose 320’s sniffing tube over a vat of petrochemicals, a barrel of wine or a pallet of fish, and it will inform you of the substance’s quality by flashing the information on an illuminated LCD monitor.
At Cyrano Science’s headquarters in Pasadena, Calif., Steven Sunshine, the company’s youthful-looking chief executive, demonstrates the
While Sunshine would be happy to sell the Cyranose to solvent companies and fishmongers, the market has changed since the company was founded in 1997. “What they were looking at then was spoilage of produce, analyzing perfumes, and various and sundry consumer and retailing types applications,” says Eric Gulliksen, an analyst at market research firm Venture Development Corp. “But I’m not so sure those people are going to want to spend the money on a relatively expensive device. But if it does what they say it can do, then it could also detect explosives and contaminants in a water supply, and that’s a different story. An electronic bomb sniffing dog would be a pretty good thing.”
By all accounts, the Cyranose does indeed do what its owners say it can do. The technology was developed at the California Institute of Technology.
In some ways, the Cyranose works like a real nose. Both contain a number of chemical sensors that respond to different smells. While a human nose has thousands of olfactory receptors, however, the Cyranose makes do with a one-inch-square MEMS chip containing 32 pinhead-sized receptors, each constructed from a conductive carbon black material blended with a specific nonconductive polymer. When exposed to a specific vapor, each receptor expands a certain amount, depending its composition. The expansion causes the receptor to temporarily break some of the connections between the carbon black pathways, increasing the electrical resistance in the sensor. Because each of the 32 sensors uses a different polymer, the Cyranose can assign unique odor signatures to millions of different vapors.
Cyrano is now moving beyond the 320, developing both simpler and more complex products. On the simple side, it’s looking at a low-cost four-sensor array to be used as a dangerous-vapor detector for home use. On the complex side, Cyrano is looking at ways in which its technology could be used in hospitals as an early warning system to diagnose respiratory infections. “Twenty percent of people on ventilators get pneumonia,” says Sunshine, “and half of them will die.”
Cyrano isn’t the only manufacturer of an electronic nose, and it has at least one handheld rival, U.K.-based Osmetech, which is testing a portable sniffing device that can detect urinary-tract infections. But Cyrano is the only company with a commercially available handheld nose.
“They’re definitely ahead of the pack,” says Marlene Bourne, a senior analyst at In-Stat/MDR. Bourne says Cyrano still has to get over the “market burn” the elctronic nose market suffered when early models of other companies’ devices didn’t perform well. But she says the Cyrano version, with its low price tag and excellent performance, “will really open doors.”
COMPANY FILE: CYRANO SCIENCES INC.
(last updated May 6, 2002)
Cyrano Sciences Inc.
73 North Vinedo Ave
Pasadena, Calif. 91107
Founded in March 1997 as a spinoff from California Institute of Technology. The company holds a portfolio of 12 U.S. patents and one European patent, with more than 50 pending. Cyrano Sciences is the exclusive licensee of the “electronic nose” technology developed at Caltech.
Medical devices — electronic diagnostic equipment
Selected small tech-related products
An “electronic nose” for use in chemical detection and identification. The Cyranose 320, launched in the second quarter of 2000, digitizes smells to enable on-site vapor analysis and identification. The portable unit weighs less than 2 pounds, runs for three hours on four AA batteries and can store up to 100 discrete digitized patterns in its memory.
The company has held five funding rounds, with its most recent financing in December 2000. It has aggregated more than $46 million in venture funds. Participants include Johnson & Johnson Development Corp. as well as nine other VCs and corporations.
Selected strategic partners
2001 annual sales: $538,000
Barriers to market
Overcoming customer disillusionment with earlier, costlier, less-effective devices that preceded Cyrano Sciences’ technology. Overall industrial recession.
Agilent, Cepheid, ENMET, MesoSystems, PerkinElmer, Osmetech
Phone: (626) 744-1700
Fax: (626) 744-1777
What keeps them up at night?
“Because it’s a new technology and a new marketplace, the challenge is educating people to use it the right way,” says Steven Sunshine, Cyrano chief executive.
— Research by Gretchen McNeely
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